Bike Among the Ruins
By TOBY BARLOW
Detroit – One night a little over a year ago, crossing Woodward Avenue, I crashed my bicycle. As I flew head over heels across Detroit’s main boulevard, I thought, well, in any other town, I’d be hitting a car right about now. But this being the Motor City, the street was deserted, completely motor-free.
While bike enthusiasts in most urban areas continue to have to fight for their place on the streets, Detroit has the potential to become a new bicycle utopia. It’s a town just waiting to be taken. With well less than half its peak population, and free of anything resembling a hill, the city and its miles and miles of streets lie open and empty, beckoning. And lately, whether it’s because of the economy or the price of gas or just because it’s a nice thing to do, there are a lot more bikers out riding.
This budding culture brings some commerce with it. Down on the waterfront, and just three hundred yards or so from the headquarters of General Motors, my friends Kelli and Karen are in their second year running the Wheelhouse bike shop. One might think, given the economy, that starting a business in the D makes as much sense as stepping on a nail, but Kelli and Karen’s shop is thriving; their profits in May were double what they were a year ago.
Granted, right now neither Kelli nor Karen take a salary from the business. They’ve each kept working their other jobs, Kelli as a bartender and Karen at a local community organization. Neither of them intends for the Wheelhouse to be a volunteer effort forever, but like many entrepreneurs, they believe investing in the business’s growth right now is the prudent thing to do.
Meanwhile, up in the Cass Corridor neighborhood, another bike shop has opened up. Manned by some of the most die-hard, gear-headed gentlemen you’ll ever meet, the Hub comes with a storeroom of piled-up old bikes that they’ll refurbish for you — and a greater social mission. Their Back Alley Bikes training program, which predates the shop, teaches youths about mechanical repairs and customer service. The Hub is technically a nonprofit, but their business is also doing pretty well.
Biking in the D is the transportation equivalent of the Slow Food movement, offering a perspective that’s completely lost to those zooming in on the Lodge Freeway and I-75, those great superhighways that, once upon a time in the name of progress, were sliced deep into the heart of the city only to bleed it dry.
A bike gives you the chance to soak up what’s left, hidden neighborhoods like Indian Village with its dappled lanes and old eclectic mansions. Out near the fabled Eight Mile Road you can cruise past an almost forgotten but now happily restored Frank Lloyd Wright house. Downtown, you can circle the ruins of the old Michigan Central Depot.
Our abandoned landscape suggests an opportunity that alternative-transportation proponents should consider: instead of raging against their cities’ internal combustion machines, they might consider a tactical retreat to the city that cars have pretty much abandoned.